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Shopify co-founder and CEO Tobias Lütke (Ben Courtice)
Shopify co-founder and CEO Tobias Lütke (Ben Courtice)

SUCCESS STORIES

Fluke and luck: Shopify’s co-founder profited from both Add to ...

Q: Given your tech background, how difficult has it been to become a business leader?

A: It’s an ongoing change. Engineering teaches you how to learn new things quickly so that helps a lot. My approach is to read a lot of books about it – the same way I’d learn about a new technology. I think that many of the best-performing companies now are run by people whose core competency is very closely tied to the product the company creates – think of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook or how [Steve] Jobs was very hands-on with the [Apple] product. It runs counter to what the MBA and business world preach but it might be a better thing – especially if you have technical founders – to have them run the companies. The only way to do this is to hire lots of people with very good people- management skills. I don’t do a ton of flying around for hand-shaking and so on. I go to networking events but not nearly as often as a CEO might because I’m more focused on product with my teams. That’s how my time is best spent.

Q: What was the biggest challenge in breaking into international markets?

A: We’ve always done well in the United States. Oddly enough, Canada was really hard for us to break into. You’d think that in a country where it’s really cold outside for half the year, people would buy more stuff online but no, it’s been pretty slow. It’s getting better, though.

Once we simply gave people tools that they can use themselves to translate our product into different languages, it spread mostly by word-of mouth through our customers to more countries.

Q: What’s your advice to anyone starting up a tech biz in Canada?

A: If you believe something needs to exist, if it’s something you want to use yourself, don’t let anyone ever stop you from doing it. The problem I see out there is that people are fishing for opportunities too much. There’s a lot of, ‘Hey, I found this inefficiency.’ Make sure you pick a good idea.

If you had a hobby that you loved when you were younger, along with a product you think people would appreciate, go for that. I spent my time growing up essentially between two things: technology and retail. I was fascinated by selling and loved the idea of making a profit, but I also spent a lot of time on technology.

I think everyone starting up a tech company should ask themselves whether what they’re building is a feature or a product. If you can’t see an obvious route of how you can charge money for something, then what you’re building is likely to be a feature of someone else’s product. If people optimize something they know there’s a market for, because they themselves want it, and it’s something they can charge money for, because it’s a product in itself, you’re already 10 steps ahead of everyone else.

Q: Do you have time for a personal life?

A: Absolutely. I have two boys, one two months old and a three-year-old, so that takes a lot of my personal life. I only work at night during the weekends. There was a time for 16-hour days early in the process. People get a bit crazy about this. But in fields where you use a lot of creativity to solve challenges, the best people might have five concentrated hours of work in a day. Anything else is just for set-up, answering e-mails and getting coffee. If I can get five concentrated hours out of someone, that’s all I can ask, myself included.

Crazy long work hours don’t make a lot of sense to me. That’s where New York and San Francisco have it wrong. You want to optimize for efficiency. Everyone needs to figure out for themselves how much sleep they need and how many hours of work they can do. I wish employers would start trusting their employees on these things.

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